This blog post was written by ICPE-Monroe County's former chairperson, currently ICPE state board member & MCCSC board member, Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer
An aspect of public education that often flies under the radar and, yet, is very much under attack, is adult education. Despite a rather small shoestring budget, Indiana (and, even more so, Monroe County) is able to provide a highly successful program for adult learners--meeting academic and personal needs, graduating adults with diplomas, equivalencies and/or job or career training. Despite a graduation rate of around 74% (cohort, according to the data provided by MCCSC), we have another adult education, privately run, coming to town: the Goodwill Excel Center.
I was contacted last December by a friend who was on the Indiana Charter School Board asking what MCCSC felt about the Goodwill Excel Center coming to Monroe County with their adult education "high school." Weren't we concerned or upset?
I had no idea that it was coming up for approval. I had heard earlier (maybe even a year earlier) that this was a center coming to help with students/adults who had not finished high school, had addiction issues, had been in prison, and that Goodwill could provide wraparound services for them. I (wrongly) assumed that there would be a public announcement of a public hearing regarding this new charter school-- in which our community could weigh in on whether we would like to spread resources thinner on another adult education/career training center competing with our own.
Then in this past legislative session, a friend in Indianapolis told me about the CEO of Goodwill Industries of Indiana, Kent Kramer, testifying before the subcommittee on school funding this past March in which he said that Monroe County was excited to have them come to our area. I went and watched it (You can watch it around the 50 minute mark here: iga.in.gov/information/archives/2019/video/committee_school_funding_subcommittee/).
Mr. Kramer said he had waitlists for his program at every Excel Center. He was asking the legislature for approval for 300 new seats so that they could open in Bloomington. He said, "Monroe County is an example we’ve identified a school that could support 300 students. We know fairly early on there will be a waiting list once that opportunity is provided in the community.”
Senator Melton asked him: “How do you determine that there’s going to be a waiting list before…”
Mr. Kramer interrupts, “Because it’s based on numbers. 14,000 adults that don’t have a high school diploma. And it’s based off of 9 years of going into new communities here. This model has been replicated in 6 other states now. We’ve got a history of what happens. When we opened the first one, there were 300 seats and within 6 months we had 2000 on our waiting list.”
I was really surprised by this conversation because I had only heard from a couple of community leaders about one big meeting in which Cook, Inc. here in town, had invited people to tell them about how great Excel Centers were. I hadn't seen any of the decision-making process.
Cook has been working with our schools in a very supportive way for some time. Our adult education program partners with Cook for a program called My Cook Pathway in which we help adult learners receive their high school equivalency (HSE, the new name for a GED) and Cook hires them.
We have the Hoosier Hills Career Center here in Monroe County which serves multiple counties and provides adults and youth with career and tech training and a number of pathways into the workforce, not to mention helping them become creative, critical thinking members of our community.
We are a fortunate community to have these public school programs meeting the needs of all learners, young and old.
Yet, the state legislature has created a separate source of funding for the Excel Centers in which they receive close to $7000 per student, while public adult education programs receive about $800. Despite these major disparities, our students receive quality instruction and our adult education graduation rates are excellent. We graduate 74% of our graduation cohort. Excel Centers cohort graduation rates range from 7% to 35% of their cohort.
When I spoke to a friend in Indianapolis who works in adult education, she told me that the Excel Centers tell the public that employers don't want HSE certificates (GEDs), but rather, they prefer Core 40 Diplomas. So, Goodwill's Excel Centers provide instruction in those and not HSEs. According to one woman I spoke with (not at an Excel Center), they will take students who already have HSEs and give them coursework to get another high school education...of a Core 40 diploma. It puzzled me.
We held a work session in March in which we could discuss Excel and our own public education offerings with Cook's CEO, Mr. Pete Yonkman as well as Mr. Dan Peterson. They wanted to bring to town a service center in which low skill or simple jobs would be provided. I think it's like, if you are a company and you need some work done, you can ask it to be done at this center? I'm not sure.
You can watch that session back here:
Before we came to the meeting, I decided to look into the situation. I called several Excel Centers and asked them about what they offered. I also asked if they had waitlists. No one had a wait list. The thing I thought sounded best was that they provided what they called daycare. They also said that they market to the community through block parties and ads and such. They had big mailers and advertisements. They went door to door in some communities to get students. Clearly there's money for marketing in a way that our public program can't provide. When I asked about the differences between Goodwill's Excel Center and the public adult education center, the woman at Excel said, "They do a GED and we do a high school diploma." She said that they offer Algebra 2 and Geometry. They do this by accelerating some classes to be 3 hours long, 4 days a week. She said, "That’s how they get all that you do in a semester. Last year the pathways changed.. so now they don’t need an ECA (end of course assessment/test) completion. Now they use the work-based project."
Then I called the public adult education or career centers in the area of Excel centers to see if having Excel there was helpful or harmful to their programs and offerings. Everyone said it was harmful. The trouble is, when we lose students, we lose precious funding. Excel Centers can market and advertise. Some adult ed centers questioned numbers and how one can get a 4 year high school Core 40 diploma in a matter of months. They talked about concerns with graduation rates.
During the work session, I raised these concerns. Ms. Christi McBride of our Hoosier Hills Career Center asked whether Cook/Goodwill would be willing to allow MCCSC to continue to do the adult education program as well as the technical training and certifications that HHCC offers, and just bring their career services center to town in order to provide those needed, low-skill manufacturing (?) jobs. They pretty much responded that it was all a package deal. But today in the paper it says that they don't necessarily need to be. So, clearly they wanted both.
After the rather contentious (and maybe I could have been more tactful?) work session, a few of us (Sue Wanzer, Dr. DeMuth, Mr. Rob Moore and Christi McBride) went to visit an Excel center in Decatur Township to check it out. Their superintendent essentially gave Goodwill the space for the center because their public schools were not doing adult education and it sounded good to them to have this company do it.
We saw classrooms and we met lots of nice people. That's the thing, it's not like people who work in this or other charter schools are not nice or competent or doing good work--although this record doesn't look good compared to our own---it's about a model of private... siphoning away from the public.
The day care was not really day care. But it's nice to provide a place for children of students. When we asked about what Path to Quality (Indiana's rating system for early childhood care), they said that, because the parents of the children are in the building, they don't have to be on that path. It's more like when you go to church and you leave kids in the nursery. Kind-of babysitting. Certainly not child care by the true sense of the word.
Nevertheless, we met some students who sang the praises of the program and some of the instructors in it. One man was grateful for being able to have someone watch his daughter. Another woman arrived in August (or September) and had had no credits with her... and she was already graduated with her Core 40 diploma and it was April! How can this be? All of high school math through Algebra 2?
Anyway, we met with the CEO of Goodwill and we explained that we already had an excellent Adult Ed. program and career center. We were concerned about losing the funding that would come with the loss of students and we were upset at the duplication of services. There wasn't really any resolution that I could tell. It was a voicing of concerns and we also spoke to the process and how we had not been involved in any decision making about whether or not Excel came to our county.
Excel is coming. Unlike other charter schools that have tried (and sometimes succeeded) to be established here in town, there was no public notice for a public hearing. There was no information given to the general public in which we could weigh in and say whether or not we thought this would be a good idea here in an area which already has much of this provided to our adult learners.
It grates on my nerves that the state legislature has created this competition for precious resources instead of a doubling down of efforts to help our public schools serve all students by providing the needed funding. It makes me angry that they prioritize the private at the expense of the public. Why should Goodwill receive $7000 per student while we get $800? Why do we not support the public schools that are already achieving on a shoe-string budget? Imagine what we could provide with that kind of money! We could maybe afford real day care and extended hours beyond what we have. We could maybe afford transportation beyond the bus passes we give and ways we help our adult learners get to school.
In the work session, we were reassured by Mr. Yonkman and Mr. Petersen that there was room enough in our area for both programs. But now the "My Cook Pathway" has been pulled from MCCSC and, presumably, will go to Excel instead of our adult education program. It should be that we can work together to provide the services and education that will make our community strong. I wonder why this program (Excel) could not be established in areas that do not have the resources that we have here. Why not some of these counties and rural areas where people are unable to get to such programs?
I hope that we will continue to partner with Cook in the many other ways that they help and support our public schools. They have been lovely partners for our public schools in so very many ways. I do hope that Excel becomes a good neighbor and is a responsible source of education and support services. I wonder what accountability there is, however, now that they are already coming.
But mostly, I hope our community will recognize the vital importance of public education and the need to keep public dollars in our common public schools, open to all, for the benefit of all.
Several years ago, many Monroe County residents, including many members of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County, wrote letters and spoke against a proposed charter school at three public hearings in three separate application cycles. Despite our efforts, charter authorizer Grace College and Seminary, of Winona Lake, Indiana, granted a charter to Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County in January 2016.
In April 2017, with the generous help of pro bono lawyers, our group sued the state of Indiana in federal court over its practice of delegating authority to religious entities (in this case, charter authorizer Grace College and Seminary) for the spending of public money. We felt, and continue to feel, that having a religious college able to decide how public funds were spent in our community violated the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. We also objected to Grace College as a religious entity collecting up to 3% of the tuition support going to the schools it authorizes, as charter authorizers are entitled by law to do.
In addition to state entities (the state superintendent and the head of the Indiana Charter School Board), our lawsuit initially named local charter school Seven Oaks Classical School. Seven Oaks asked to be dropped from the suit; we agreed, but then Seven Oaks reversed course and intervened.
Our case was never heard on its merits. The judge assigned to our case decided this past fall that we did not have standing to bring the case. (Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of standing: it “is the term for the ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party's participation in the case.”) At the time we filed suit, our group included parents of students in the Monroe County Community School Corporation and Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corporation; teachers in both school corporations; and community members who were neither parents nor teachers, but who were invested in the health of our public schools.
After the judge’s decision, we considered filing an appeal. This appeal would have gone to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. If the 7th Circuit disagreed with the local judge, she would be asked to consider the merits of our case; if she ruled against us on that, we could appeal again. This process could stretch out over five or six years, and at every stage, there would be expenses for filing and printing, even though our lawyers were donating their considerable time.
On the recommendation of our lawyers, based in part on the judge’s wording of her decision, our board decided not to pursue an appeal, but to channel the energy and funds in our organization in other directions.
The state of Indiana has now asked the judge to require us to reimburse the state for its costs in the suit, $1,491, and the judge has agreed. One of our lawyers says this is a highly unusual move for a constitutional challenge such as ours. Our group’s funds are contributed by our members, overwhelmingly Monroe County residents, to support advocacy for public education—and the state is taking those funds to pay for its defense of privatizing decisions about public money. Something is wrong with this picture. We will pay, but we will not be deterred. If you believe in the principles we are fighting for and would like to contribute to the lawsuit charges from the state, we have set up a DonorBox page: https://donorbox.org/help-us-pay-for-our-lawsuit. If you prefer U.S. mail, our address is P.O. Box 5056, Bloomington, IN 47407.
On behalf of our board, I want to thank all of our members for their support of us as we launched our lawsuit. We are deeply grateful to Alex Tanford, Bill Groth, and Janet Stavropoulos, the legal team who donated their expertise and time to our cause.
In the long run, we will only be successful in the courts if we are successful in the court of public opinion. We know that throughout Indiana, conservative and liberal residents value their public schools. Public schools are the heart of rural and urban communities. They have historically been important employers who provide stable middle-class jobs (though with years of underfunding, that status is under threat). They are where we care for and educate our children and they are legally obligated to educate all kids regardless of family income, religion, ability, or race. The quality of our public schools cannot be separated from the resources we invest in them, or from the prospects for Indiana’s future. Will our state continue to undermine its public education infrastructure?
Moving forward, we are working on outreach to local community groups (Cathy spoke to the Rotary Club Tuesday, April 16) to show how Indiana’s education policies are affecting our school system. We are at the Farmers’ Market. We are planning a regular book club/social hour. We are beginning to plan a summer movie/event and a membership drive. In all of this, we can use your help—your membership, your passion, and your knowledge. Membership alone is so valuable. If you have time as well, can you take an hour to stand at the market, come to a book club meeting or one of our business meetings, connect us with a group that may be interested in our presentation, or help us organize an event? Our power is people power—ordinary people talking to their neighbors and friends, examining information, and showing up for what we value.
Chair, Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County